Gandhi and the Mantle of the Mahatma

A look back at the life of Gandhi on his 150th birthday

Revolution

 

The Mantle Image Mahatma Gandhi

 

“The loss of India would mark and consummate the downfall of the British Empire. That great organism would pass at a stroke out of life into history. From such a catastrophe there could be no recovery.”

 

So declared Lord Randolph Churchill, who was at various times leader of the Conservative Party, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Secretary of State for India, and incidentally, the father of Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill was not really worried. Great Britain clasped India in a pincer grip; the empire itself was unshakeable. In fact, in 1885, Churchill ordered the annexation of Upper Burma, the last part of an old Burmese kingdom, to ingratiate himself with Queen Victoria.

 

If only Churchill knew. The British Empire’s nemesis was then a teenager. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the youngest son of Karamchand and Putlibai Gandhi, was born on October 2, 1869. There was no hint that this shy boy was destined for greatness. But great he became. “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth,” wrote Albert Einstein. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh declared, “I and others may be revolutionaries but we are disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, directly or indirectly, nothing more, nothing less.” Barack Obama said of Gandhi: “He’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King (Martin Luther King, Jr.), so if it hadn’t been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States.”

 

The Mantle Image Rabindranath Tagore Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi with Rabindranath Tagore.

Mohandas Gandhi is popularly known by the title Mahatma or “Great Soul” (from the Sanskrit maha, great, and atman, soul), to the extent that many around the world and even in India think it to be his first name. It is generally held that the polymath Rabindranath Tagore bestowed the title on him in March 1915. However, three months earlier in January 1915, his admirer Nautamlal Mehta, the Sheth of Jetpur, Gujarat hailed him as Mahatma in a document. It is the earliest known instance of Gandhi being so addressed.

 

Gandhi detested the title and its implicit connotations of sainthood. He was painfully conscious of his many flaws, candidly described in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He was more accommodating with the honorific bestowed on him in later life: Bapu (Beloved Father). Fathers can be loving, understanding, kind, and compassionate — but not flawless, as saints are expected to be.
           

 

Gandhi’s Childhood Influences

Mohandas, affectionately called Moniya by his family, was a shy boy. But he had a mind of his own, and experimented with the truth as he saw it. His family was strict vegetarian, but teenagers will be teenagers, and Moniya was eaten up by the desire to gorge on meat. His classmates recited a doggerel verse:

 

Behold the mighty Englishman

He rules the Indian small,

Because he is a meat-eater

He is five cubits tall.

 

Meat will make me taller and stronger, Moniya thought. And if India stuffed up on meat, we’ll so wallop the British they’ll scuttle back to their wee island. But Gandhi did not relish the mutton, and had nightmares where a helpless goat bleated pathetically from within his stomach.

 

The Mantle Image Mahatma Gandhi Sheik Mehtab
Gandhi (left) and Sheik Mehtab (1883).

Experimenters can’t draw conclusions from a single incident though, so the clandestine, expensive meat-eating orgies arranged by Moniya’s elder brother Karsandas and their friend Sheikh Mehtab continued. Karsandas and Mehtab persuaded Moniya to chisel out and sell a chunk from Karsandas’s gold armlet. Moniya complied, but was wracked by guilt. He wrote a confession to his father, stating his readiness to accept any form of punishment, and promising never to steal again. He prepared himself for a sound thrashing. Instead, his father was so touched by the note that he tore it up and wept copiously. Looking back at this incident several years later, Gandhi singled it out as the one that sowed the seeds of ahimsa (non-violence) in his psyche.

 

If Gandhi’s father instilled in him the notions of non-violence, sticking to one’s stand, incorruptibility, and being practical, his mother taught him to draw strength from the spiritual traditions of India as she did from Vaishnavism (the branch of Hinduism worshipping God in the form of Vishnu, Preserver of the Universe) as well as Jainism; both emphasized that all forms of life are sacred. Muslims and Parsis also visited his home; when religion entered the conversation, Gandhi’s parents showed deep respect for other faiths. Moniya was also attracted to a song, Vaishnav Janato, composed by the medieval saint-poet Narsi Mehta, which taught him empathy. Its first line says: “He is a true devotee of Vishnu who feels another’s anguish as his own.”

 

 

Student Days in London

Gandhi left India to study law in London. There he read the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Years later he would study it seriously and make it his bedrock. Gandhi concluded that the 700 verse poem was an allegory. Set against the backdrop of an internecine civil war in ancient India, a prince wants to avoid bloodshed but is reminded by God that he is obliged to fight a just war. Gandhi stated that “under the guise of physical warfare, the Gita described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind….Physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.”

 

After reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia as well as his poetic translation of the Gita, Gandhi was inspired to read several other Hindu philosophical texts. He also read Madam Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy. He was turned off by the Old Testament, but the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, impressed. He liked how Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a believer of the austere life.

 

He dressed fashionably, taking to Western attire. He read newspapers regularly, analyzing how the news media operated. He frequented vegetarian restaurants, networked with other British vegetarians and promoted the practice, all of which pulled him out of his shell.

 

 

Into the Crucible of South Africa

On his return to India, Gandhi found his knowledge of British law was worthless because the British governed India with a different set of laws. Then he was approached by Dada Abdulla & Co., an Indian-owned company in South Africa embroiled in a legal case. Could Gandhi assist? Gandhi accepted, and on May 23, 1893, arrived in Durban. His 21 years there were to be the watershed years that changed the man into the mahatma.

 

 

The Mantle Image Mahatma Gandhi South Africa
Gandhi in South Africa in 1908 with non-violent protesters outside the prison.

 

 

South Africa as we know it today had not yet come into existence then. There were four separate colonies: Natal, the Cape, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. The Boers of Dutch ancestry conquered the land in the 16th century from its natives, the Zulus, the Xhosas, and other groups. Then the British arrived and wrested the colonies from the Boers. The Boers had brought slaves from Malaya, Java, and the Pacific Islands. The British brought indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent. So there was a potpourri of ethnic groups who hadn’t lived there before, with the whites considering themselves far above the Asians and the Africans. In time, the British and the Boers would go to war ultimately resulting in one country, the Republic of South Africa, which would codify racial hierarchy and separation into the laws constituting apartheid. Gandhi had no inkling of the volatile and volcanic milieu he was wading into.

 

Dada Abdulla sent Gandhi to Pretoria to be briefed by the lawyers currently handling their suit. Gandhi traveled in a first-class coach on the train from Durban but a little after 9 p.m., when it reached Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, a white passenger objected to riding with a “darkie.” Two railway officials ordered Gandhi to shift to third class. Gandhi refused, showing them his first-class ticket. They hurled him and his baggage onto the platform.

 

There are historic moments which, when they occur, are not recognized as such because they are so commonplace. Only hindsight would show that the moment Gandhi’s body slammed painfully on the hard concrete of the railway platform was the moment that marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

 

Gandhi spent the bitterly cold winter night shivering in the waiting room. The stationmaster had confiscated his baggage, which contained his overcoat. What thoughts occupied his mind all night, we will never know. In his autobiography he only shared his resolution: “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial — only a symptom of the deep disease of color prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for the wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of the color prejudice.” This was the plank on which he would craft his future political and social campaigns.

 

The next day, with the influence of highly-placed friends, he continued his train journey first-class. But the last leg was by coach. The coachman considered him a “coolie,” an extremely racist and derogatory term for Indians in South Africa, and would not allow him to travel with white passengers. He was compelled to sit outside beside the coachman.

 

The Mantle Image Mahatma Gandhi South Africa Lawyer
The young Lawyer in South Africa.

Gandhi was an unusual lawyer. The courtroom is adversarial: prosecution versus defense. Once, he won a case and the opponent, who had to pay Gandhi’s client money and bear all legal costs, was facing bankruptcy. Gandhi, the winning attorney, convinced his client to accept the money in installments from the loser. “I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder,” he wrote in his autobiography. The Bhagavad Gita was in play again; a battlefield, two inimical armies facing each other, but the lessons were loftier.

 

The lawsuits Gandhi represented moved slowly through the courts, so he had ample time to take up causes dear to his heart. Cleanliness was one; he was repelled by the unsanitary tenements in which most Indians lived and with the Indians’ own disregard for hygiene. He wanted all Indians, including the poor laborers, to learn English for without it their voices wouldn’t be heard. He wanted Indians to jettison their religious and cultural differences; Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, and Marwaris, Bengalis and Tamils should come together as Indians and fellow human beings while still adhering to their faith privately.       

 

 

The Spirit of the Rig Veda

Gandhi was open to good ideas no matter where they originated, from within India or overseas. This was in keeping with the open-minded spirit of the Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda: Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah (Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions — Rig Veda 1:89-1). Three influences on his political thought were an Englishman, a Russian, and an American: Ruskin, Tolstoy, and Thoreau.

 

The Mantle Image Unto This Last John Ruskin

On a train journey in South Africa Gandhi read Unto This Last, a book by the British art critic and philosopher John Ruskin. Ruskin’s thesis was that the true basis of an ideal society was not wealth, as well-regarded economists maintained — it was human companionship, which was the unstated motivation for human existence. A lawyer’s work, mused Gandhi, had the same value as a barber’s because both had the same right of earning their livelihood through their labor. Gandhi was so impressed that he translated Unto This Last into Gujarati.

 

After Gandhi visited a Trappist colony in Marianhill where monks lived a simple life alongside Zulus and farmed the land together, he purchased land outside Durban and started a similar commune called Phoenix Settlement based on ideas from Unto This Last.

 

Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You convinced Gandhi that the essence of the Christian gospel resonated with the non-violence of Hinduism and Jainism. Then a newspaper editor in India asked Tolstoy whether Indians had the right to combat the British by force. Tolstoy responded through a monograph, Letter to a Hindu.

 

Tolstoy deemed it ludicrous that a small bunch of English merchants could subdue a nation of 200 million: “Do not the figures alone make it clear that not the English, but the Hindus themselves are the cause of their slavery?” The author of War and Peace pointed out that the Indians were a divided lot and many had surreptitiously connived with the English. “If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognize, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In the name of this principle they submitted to their little Tsars, their Princes, in the name of it they struggled with each other, fought with the Europeans, with the English, and, at present, are preparing to struggle with them again.” Violence wasn’t the answer, Tolstoy concluded, but non-violent non-cooperation with the authorities was.

 

Ruskin and Tolstoy helped Gandhi conceptualize how notions like aparigraha (non-possession, non-attachment) and samabhava (equability) had roles in people’s lives. Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy, the letters flowing between Durban and Yasnaya Polyana until Tolstoy’s death.

 

Gandhi was also charmed by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, whose ideas so resonated with his own. Many think that Thoreau influenced Gandhi, but Gandhi himself confirmed that he had formed his ideas well before reading Thoreau. Thoreau just reinforced them. It is worth mentioning that Thoreau, like other Transcendentalists, was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita.

 

Gandhi acquired land near Johannesburg and started Tolstoy Farm, once again modeled after the Trappist monastery that had so impressed him. The community grew their own food and made their own clothing. They also made sandals, which they sold. During this time, he honed his writing and editing skills at which he was better than at speaking — his voice was monotonous, yet he drew crowds because his words were steeped in conviction.

 

Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm were the pilot projects for the larger ashrams that Gandhi would later establish in India: Sabarmati Ashram and Sevagram Ashram.

 

Gandhi did not judge people by their caste or occupation or faith. At Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm, everybody worked as one to help each other and to achieve common goals. Gandhi was fortunate that his political mentors Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a Hindu Maharashtrian in India, and Dadabhai Nowroji, a Parsi Gujarati in London, were also free of such prejudices. The Indian National Congress in India at that time was an all-male, upper class, professional and privileged group servile to the British crown. Gandhi turned it upside down and inside out by including women and people from all stations in life.

 

 

May the Force Be With You

The Star Wars movies gave the English language a new expression: “May the Force be with you.” The Force is the invisible, all-powerful energy holding the cosmos together, and the expression is a way of wishing somebody good luck and protection from danger in their endeavors.

 

Long before Star Wars, Gandhi believed that his political philosophy, Satyagraha (Truth Force), was “perhaps the mightiest instrument on earth.” The name is derived from the Sanskrit satya, truth, and āgraha, holding forcefully to. Satya in turn is derived from Sat, existence – that is, Truth is the fabric of existence. Gandhi summed it up thus: “Truth is God. This Truth is not merely the Truth we are expected to speak. It is that which alone is, which constitutes the stuff of which all things are made, which subsists by the virtue of its own power, which is not supported by anything else but supports everything that exists….Soul Force originates in that power.”

 

In practice, Satyagraha translated to non-violent resistance to discriminatory laws and involved any number of things: selling merchandise without the unjustly required license, burning registration cards that people of color by law had to always carry, not paying taxes levied on specific ethnic groups, refusing to provide signatures or thumb impressions, and crossing colonial boundaries without permission. Gandhi leading the protestors across the border from Natal to the Transvaal was a widely publicized incident. They were promptly deported but did it again, were arrested and sentenced to up to three months of hard labor. But they continued to do it, arrests, thrashings and jail notwithstanding, for The Force was with them. The governments of Natal and the Transvaal developed migraines.

 

Gandhi initially wanted women to stay out of the satyagraha protests, but changed his mind when he saw the motivation, determination, and fearlessness of the Tamil women in Natal and in Johannesburg, especially during the final push in 1913 and 1914. It increased participation by men, for the men knew they would be forever shamed if they skulked at home while their wives, sisters, and mothers fought for the cause risking harsh penalties. The British brought people from all over India to South Africa as laborers, including a sizeable Tamil and Telugu community from South India. Their wholehearted support so stirred Gandhi that on his sea voyages between South Africa and India he taught himself Tamil, and was also aided by his Tamil friends in Durban. One can only imagine the delight of the Tamil community when Gandhi hailed them in their own tongue (Vanakkam! Sowkhyamā?).

 

Gandhi commanded utter loyalty from his followers, who were willing to follow him through hailstorm and hellfire. During the Transvaal Satyagrahas an amazing 35 percent of the Indians in the colony risked arrest instead of playing it safe. Gandhi mobilized people living away from their homeland, where one would expect them to be scared.

 

Around this time Gandhi abandoned Western clothing, the suits, hats, bowties, and cravats that he so adored, and for the rest of his life wore nothing but a white dhoti and sandals, with either a kurta or a plain white cloth draped across his upper body. Gandhi wore the same attire on his 1931 London visit, prompting Sir Winston Churchill to derisively call him a half-naked fakir, words that might have made Gandhi chuckle. One man’s insult is another man’s compliment.

 

 

Reassessing the Role of Women

Gandhi’s attitude toward women changed in South Africa. He was brought up in a patriarchal society where women served men. He himself was married to Kasturba through child-marriage – a practice he later fought to have abolished, and which led to the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1930. Had Gandhi remained in India after graduation from his London law school, he would likely have become just like the other men in his society. But in South Africa as in London, women moved with men as friends, with no strings attached. He observed his friend Henry Pollack treating his wife Millie as an equal, sharing laughs as well as arguments.

 

The Mantle Image Gandhi Kasturba
Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (1902).

Kasturba Gandhi, though gentle and loving, was fiercely independent and resisted her husband’s attempts to control her in the early years of their marriage. Gandhi came to regard her not just as on par with him but an integral part of what he stood for. She would often take the lead when the South Africans, and later, the British, jailed him and was sometimes jailed herself.

 

Gandhi’s secretary Sonja Schlesin informed him that in the municipal elections in the Transvaal, women, though all white, were allowed for the first time to stand for election, as many as 11 were elected, and that a woman doctor was appointed as the medical inspector in the school system. She declared that if “the civilization of a country is measured by the position it accords to women, you see how high the Transvaal stands in the scale of nations!”

 

Gandhi was also chuffed by Tamil women taking the lead in his Satyagraha protests. On his return to India, he fought to include women in politics. The groundwork he laid saw India elect its first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1966 while over half a century later, the United States hasn’t yet elected a woman as its president.

 

 

A Clash of Ideas

Gandhi had ongoing interactions with the three Abrahamic religions. He knew Judaism through his close South African friends: Pollack, Kallenbach, and Sonja Schlesin. He debated Christianity with Christian friends. He read the Quran more than once and enjoyed friendships with many Muslims. Yet he was a staunch Hindu, turning to the Bhagavad Gita for inspiration in moments of despair.

 

When Gandhi was in London in 1909 to take up the cause of the South African Indians with the British government, he attended a function organized by expatriate Indians to celebrate Dussehra, the festival honoring Hindu hero-deity Rama’s victory over Ravana, the King of Lanka, and the rescue of his wife Sita who Ravana had abducted. Gandhi extolled the personal qualities of Rama, who made immense sacrifices to uphold truth, and Sita who faithfully supported her husband through the hardships of exile.

 

The next speaker was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a 26-year-old Indian student. Savarkar agreed with Gandhi’s commentary on Rama, but reminded the audience that Dussehra was preceded by nine days of worship of the fierce Warrior-Goddess Durga (Durga Puja), and that only after war, much bloodshed, and killing Ravana could Rama establish his golden rule. And Rama’s Lieutenant Hanuman set Lanka’s capital ablaze as a well-deserved lesson to their opponents. According to Savakar, non-violence had no place in the battle for India’s independence.

 

The significance of that titanic clash of ideas was not apparent that evening. But 40 years on, it would result in Gandhi’s assassination, and later, to the formation of the political party that currently governs India.

 

 

The Mantle of the Mahatma

How did Gandhi the man acquire the mantle of the mahatma, a mantle so unique it cannot be passed on to anyone else? His many biographers, including historian Ramachandra Guha, his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, the scholar Judith Brown, and Yogesh Chadha generally agree that Gandhi’s years in South Africa were seminal – his experiences setting up communes, his interactions with people of diverse backgrounds, seeing women as equals, honing his outlook from his own beliefs and from other sources like Ruskin and Tolstoy.

 

Though he fought against the government, Gandhi harbored no bitterness whatsoever towards the British people. His years in London and his friendships with the ordinary English people showed him they were no imperialists; they were as human as he, foibles and all. Years later, the same attitude was displayed by another leader inspired by Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, who had no rancor toward the white South African government who deprived him of 27 prime years of his life by imprisoning him.

 

In those days not many had radios, and the illiterate could not read newspapers. Yet Gandhi’s struggles for South Africa’s Indian community still got publicity in India. He was endorsed by the All India Muslim League and the influential Bishop of Madras, an Englishman and a Christian; they transcended religion seeing the human aspect. So when Gandhi returned to India, he wasn’t exactly unknown. Using satyagraha and ahimsa, he turned Congress into a body that took on the British King-Emperor knowing that the Force was with them.

 

Gandhi’s amity extended to his adversaries as well as his friends. One of his fiercest and most powerful opponents was Field-Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, a scholar who fought for the Boers in the Anglo-Boer war and who later would become South Africa’s Prime Minister. Smuts and Gandhi opposed each other politically and ideologically in every possible way, with Gandhi often jailed on Smuts’ command. Here’s an excerpt from Smuts’ heartfelt tribute on Gandhi’s 70th birthday:

 

“It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect….He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate, and preserved his gentle humour even in the most trying situations.

 

…His method was deliberately to break the law, and to organize his followers into a mass movement of passive resistance in disobedience to the law objected to…For me —  the defender of law and order — there was the usual trying situation, the odium of carrying out a law which had no strong public support, and finally the discomfiture when the law had to be repealed. For him it was a successful coup. Nor was the personal touch wanting, for nothing in Gandhi’s procedure is without a peculiar personal touch. In gaol he had prepared for me a very useful pair of sandals which he presented to me when he was set free! I had worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

 

 

The Mantle Image JC Smuts Gandhi
JC Smuts' sandals. via wikimedia

In addition to making sandals, a skill he picked up at Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi constantly experimented; with herbal remedies replacing Western medicine, diets where some foods were allowed and others not, and celibacy. Most regard these as eccentricities and some mock them, but they helped him to strengthen his willpower, willpower that he used devastatingly in other situations.

 

Above all, he was politically canny. He never bandied Satygraha indiscriminately. Ramachandra Guha explains how Gandhi carefully selected which laws to break, when, by whom, in which place, and in what manner, and issued precise, unambiguous instructions. He was a natural leader. He knew where to draw the line. When he fought to annul discriminatory laws against people of color, he did not demand equality between people of color and whites. He knew it would eventually happen — but now was not the time.

 

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India for good, never to return to South Africa again. But Moniya the Timorous had become Mohandas the Mahatma. A South African friend of Guha’s told him: “You gave us a lawyer; we gave you back a Mahatma.” Gandhi took on the British at the heart of their empire — India, the jewel in the crown. He would prove Lord Randolph Churchill a prophet: after the British lost India, their empire disintegrated.

 

 

150 Years Later…

Vinayak Savarkar, who had contested Gandhi at the Dussehra meeting in London, became a revolutionary, propounding the concept of Hindutva (“Being Hindu”), a form of Hindu nationalism that presupposes cultural superiority. In the 1930s, he became the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu Grand Assembly), a party of right-wing nationalists ferociously opposed to Gandhian thought and with a radically different interpretation of Hinduism from that of Gandhi’s. They were livid at the division of India and Pakistan, although Gandhi fought it vigorously, and were incensed that Gandhi influenced the decision to make India secular rather than a Hindu state the way Pakistan chose to become Islamic.

 

Savarkar masterminded the conspiracy to murder Gandhi. On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, one of the conspirators, shot Gandhi as he walked out after a prayer meeting. The apostle of peace and non-violence died on the spot from three bullet wounds. Passionate Hindu that he always was, Gandhi’s words as he breathed his last breath were: “Hey, Ram!” (“My Lord!” or “Oh, Ram!” — invoking the very Hindu deity featured in his stand-off with Savarkar at the London Dussehra meeting 40 years back). At the trial, Savarkar was absolved on technical grounds. His guilt was established posthumously. Had two key witnesses testified, Savarkar would have been convicted.

 

The fury over Gandhi’s assassination relegated the Hindu Mahasabha to the sidelines, but Savarkar’s Hindutva philosophy spawned or influenced other organizations. Chief among them: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer/Patriotic Organization) or RSS. The RSS along with other ideologically allied organizations are collectively called the Sangh Parivar (The RSS family). The political arm of the RSS is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) constituted in a somewhat similar manner as Sinn Féin’s political representation of the Irish Republican Army.

 

The Mantle Image Narendra Modi
Modi taking the oath of office.

When the leader of the BJP, Narendra Modi, was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014, he instituted the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) to tidy up India before Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, reflecting Gandhi’s emphasis on hygiene. The inauguration was publicized with videos of Modi, along with other ministers and celebrities, sweeping the city streets with brooms. But sweeping merely shifts rubbish from one corner to another. What India truly needs is an efficient system of waste management, and the country is yet to have it — for instance, a garbage dump outside Delhi has become about as tall as the Taj Mahal.

 

In addition to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Modi has built toilet facilities for millions of rural Indians whose only previous option was open-air defecation. But this also remains controversial, as there have been reports that many toilets are not functional. And some who shunned these toilets have had their food ration cards revoked, their electricity cut, or been otherwise publicly shamed, charges that India’s government denies. Human behavior cannot be changed overnight, not even in time for publicity related to a forthcoming anniversary. What is undeniable is that at the time of this writing, two children aged 10 and 12 were murdered because they defecated in the open.

 

Besides being tragic, the situation is ironic, given that the idea of these changes is to honor Gandhi. The children were Dalits (“Untouchables”) whose cause Gandhi championed all his life. Violence, which Gandhi abhorred, was used. The children’s parents said Modi’s government had not yet provided a toilet to them. To top it all off, at that same moment, 7,500 miles away in New York, Modi was lavishly feted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his toilet campaign. An award that many saw as undeserved.

 

Other trends are more damning. The Hindu Mahasabha re-enacted Gandhi’s assassination and its members reverentially garlanded the photo of the assassin, Godse. The police made token arrests. Far more appalling, BJP member Pragya Thakur, a woman who dons the saffron robes of Hindu renunciants, labels herself Sadhvi (“Virtuous Woman”) and has been implicated in blowing up a mosque, publicly glorified Godse. Although Modi rebuked her, the BJP did not expel her from the party. She stood for election to Parliament as its candidate in the city of Bhopal, won, and is now a lawmaker. The BJP itself won a landslide victory, propelled in part by a wave of Hindu nationalistic pride sweeping India.

 

It is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. India will celebrate; the world will celebrate. Champagne will flow, though Gandhi was a teetotaler. But moments that create history seem unremarkable at the time — Gandhi’s ejection from the train at Pietermaritzburg, or his face-off with Savarkar on that chilly October London evening. And perhaps history will most remember this Gandhi anniversary year as the one when a large chunk of Indians believed there was nothing wrong in glorifying his assassin.

 

Which raises an important question: how does today’s India regard Gandhi? About 600 million, well over half of India’s population, are under 25 years old. No other country has more young people. How much do they understand Gandhi — what his ideals were, how he lived, what he accomplished? Who is Gandhi to them? A statue on a street corner? A face on a currency note? Or more?

 

I shall leave the last word to the American novelist and Literature Nobel laureate, Pearl S. Buck:  “He was right, he knew he was right, we all knew he was right. The man who killed him knew he was right. However long the follies of the violence continue, they but prove that Gandhi was right. ‘Resist to the very end’, he said, ‘but without violence’. Of violence the world is sick. Oh, India, dare to be worthy of your Gandhi.”

 

 

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India, Gandhi, Narendra Modhi, Mahatma